Lawbreakers review: The perils of multiplayer-only experiences mar an otherwise solid shooter

Overwatch it ain't

Within seconds of loading into my first match of Lawbreakers, it struck me as a game that a younger version of me would have discovered, devoured and evangelised to my friends until it became a fixture at both our regular LAN parties and our Skype-powered, weekend-long gaming sessions. Back then, maybe that’s all it took.

Today, FPS games are in a different and altogether-stranger place.

While the big franchises like Battlefield and Call of Duty crowd are still definitely around, the critical mass that propelled them in their peak has largely-dispersed. The war doesn’t really feel like it’s raging as much as it is on its last embers. Now, in the absence of the big guns, a pretty strong case could be made that Overwatch has more-or-less taken up the torch for the genre.

Credit: Boss Key Productions

However, the overwhelming popularity of Blizzard’s game isn’t really driven by the shooting in it. Not really, and certainly not in the same way as it has been for the genre’s past paragons like Quake, Doom and Unreal. Sure, the gunplay in Overwatch is fun but it’s the personality of the characters and the emphasis on rewarding team-play that keeps people coming back.

Today’s online shooters are often as interested in trying to be Overwatch as they are trying to beat it. And even at the best of times, it’s tricky to discern how Lawbreakers fits into and navigates that dichotomy.

The Pitch

Developed by Boss Key Productions and headlined by the involvement of former-Epic Games frontman Cliff Bleszinski, Lawbreakers is a class-based, fast-paced and arena-laced multiplayer first-person shooter. Set in a vaguely science fiction battleground of the near future, the game sees two teams face off in perpetual, gravity-defying combat across eight arena-style maps and five game modes.  

Where other games might set up lore, backstory or a bigger picture to the story being told through multiplayer gameplay, Lawbreakers tries to keep things things as simple as possible. One one side, you’ve got “The Law”. On the other, you’ve got “The Breakers”.

You do the math.

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‘Cops and Robbers’ meets Unreal

Despite what it may look like, Lawbreakers is definitely not trying to be Overwatch. However, it is also frustratingly and frequently acting like it is. Launching the game does take you to an Overwatch-style lobby screen where you can queue into games, customize your character loadouts and buy “stash drops”.

However, once you get past that crisp, clean and admittedly very-Blizzard-esque lobby and into the game itself, the differences become a bit more pronounced.

Lawbreakers Main MenuCredit: Fergus Halliday | IDG
Lawbreakers Main Menu

Well, at least until you run into the game’s cast of characters. There are 18 playable characters across nine roles, broken out into ‘Law’ and ‘Breaker’ variants.

Lawbreakers' LineupCredit: Fergus Halliday | IDG
Lawbreakers' Lineup

While the cast of Lawbreakers doesn’t quite hit the high level of charm and likeability found in Overwatch, you can’t say that Boss Key aren’t trying to evoke something similar. Details about the game’s world are peppered into the game through colorful voice lines and expressive animations.

Some of the game’s nine classes - like the Gunslinger and the Battle Medic - definitely echo the familiar Overwatch characters - like Tracer and Zenyatta - but, for the most part, the class-design in Lawbreakers explores relatively-fresh territory.

Abilities are refreshingly diverse, and weapons intricately animated and detailed. Neither side of a character’s kit is too powerful and it feels like the game has been designed in a way where fortune favors those bold enough to balance both sides of the equation.

Lawbreakers’ relentless streak to break out of the norms of the modern FPS sandbox extends even to the maps and modes in the game as well. All the usual suspects - CTF, Deathmatch, Capture Point - have been swapped out for Overcharge, Turf War, Occupy, Uplink and Blitzball (a spiritual successor to the Bombing Run mode found in the Unreal Tournament series).

Credit: Boss Key Productions

Though the relative fun of each of these encounters does varies, they do all a successful job of giving a distinct and different sense of pacing to games like Overwatch. Even after a few hours with Lawbreakers, it felt like I had only scratched the surface of what these genuinely refreshing multiplayer modes could offer.

While most of the action in Lawbreakers takes place in arena-like levels, there’s a special secret sauce in the mix in the form of the zero-gravity and low-gravity sections. This acts as more than a gimmick. In fact, it's here that the game is at its most compelling and unique. During the heat and height of combat, it can feel like you’re fighting with gravity as much as you are other players - and there’s a satisfying knack to understanding that relationship.

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Fight or Flight

Unfortunately, Lawbreakers does not do a good job of teaching you anything about it. Really, the game doesn’t do a great job of teaching you much about anything. In terms of on-boarding, it’s lazy at best.

There’s a barebones sandbox mode designed to let you learn the controls by running around a map slaughtering braindead AI players. There’s also a series of embedded YouTube videos explaining each map, mode and role in the game. That’s about it.

Lawbreakers is very much one of those that multiplayer games that expects you to dive in and learn everything on the fly, and that inaccessibility may well be the biggest difference between it and Overwatch.

Credit: Boss Key Productions

It took me about a couple dozen or so matches before I started to really have a grip on how to play the various characters and modes. Longer still before I understood how to actually use the gravity mechanics to my advantage.

These days, it’s reasonably-respectable for a game to focus solely on multiplayer experiences. However, as someone who grew up playing the Unreal Tournament series, the absence of an AI or bots mode for new players to train up on remains a hard pill to swallow.

It doesn’t help that the queue times for the Lawbreakers’ launch have been so poor. Getting into a match could take as little as 10-15 minutes of my time, or as long as an hour and a half. The picture this paints isn’t a pretty one. Why pay $30 to buy into an experience you can’t really play with anyone?

Credit: Boss Key Productions

In the end, the absence of an sustained and active online community of people to play with will kill Lawbreakers far quicker that anything Blizzard does. That might sound like hyperbole but the Steam Charts for this game look pretty dire only a few weeks after launch - and that makes it hard to recommend no matter how well it plays.

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The Bottom Line

It’s a real shame that Lawbreakers, a game so overwhelmed with creative decisions, appears to be so very dead-on-arrival. Back when I was a teenager, Lawbreakers would have won me over in a heartbeat. Its multiplayer matches are blisteringly fast and the mechanics are difficult but rewarding to master. These days, however, maybe those things aren't as certain of a recipe for success..

Credit: Boss Key Productions

Lawbreakers is a solid enough experience to play but remains hard to wholeheartedly endorse while matchmaking queues are as long as they are. The game's suite of glossy environs, explosive weapons and attitude-riven characters crackle with confidence as it seemingly rides an express train to digital obscurity. Still, it’s not to hard to see my inner teenager enthusiastically tagging along for the ride.

Lawbreakers is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One for $29.99.